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Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2000

Fresh and fragrant -- Kyushu's new spring sake


By STEPHANIE GARTELMANN

Kyushu may not be as famous for its sake as for shochu, but historical findings tell us it's probably been drunk here since the rule of Himiko -- around A.D. 300. While northern Japan is more famous for sake, Kyushu brewers too produce some fine labels, meeting changes in consumer tastes. Kyushu's sake is full-bodied, with a distinct rice fragrance.

Once, sake was brewed year-round, but today it is brewed in winter, when cold temperatures keep the sugar levels down for slower fermentation and a smoother, drier sake.

Toward the end of winter the precious result is extracted and the drinking begins. Breweries hang giant globes made of fresh, green cedar twigs outside their premises to announce the new sake -- nama genshu, fresh undiluted sake that can be drunk in its unpasteurized state for only a few weeks. Many throw big parties. Now is the time for you to head for northern Kyushu's countryside, where many breweries are located.

Not all sake breweries have kurabiraki, or opening festivities. Some feel that too many visitors will bring zillions of germs far too close to the fragile product. Still, about 15 percent of breweries hold them in style, plying thousands of visitors with free sake, local specialties and more. Many producers believe kurabiraki events are vital to rekindling public interest in sake, which is unfortunately losing more fans each year to other drinks.

Closest to Fukuoka is Tanaka Shuzojo in Maebaru. This small establishment uses all original wooden presses, and, as at most good breweries, their head brewer has overseen the process for decades. Their kurabiraki event Feb. 19-20 will see thousands of people join the tastings. Gourmet ham made by a nearby specialist is roasted for the public, along with sake manju and anpan sweet bean rolls.

Also close to Fukuoka is Kame-no-O brewery in Munakata, established over 280 years ago. Their freshly extracted, exquisite genshu, a spicy, heady and almost greenish liquid, will be served at their kurabiraki Feb. 12-13. If you've never tried genshu, you will be stunned by its fragrant depths, unlike anything available a few weeks later.

Misako Izu, an 11th-generation scion of Kame-no-O's direct line, says "This area has always had a rich crop of rice and fine, pure water -- essential for making good sake."

Getting further out of Fukuoka is also recommended, to combine drinking with a dip in a hot spring or a browse around a historical town. Yoshii, famous for its picturesque whitewashed buildings dating back 400 years, is down the road from Ukiha, where the Isonosawa brewery is expecting 3,000-4,000 people at its kurabiraki Feb. 11, which will feature a live band, viewing of the sake-making process and lots of sake. Yoshii has many galleries and several historic homes worth seeing. Get a walking map from the tourist information center.

Further west, close to the mountain hot springs of Amagasa and Oguni, is the pretty and historic town of Hita. Spread between two rivers, Hita has three sake breweries worth checking out. Along the broad, meandering Mikume River, several onsen offer excellent views for bathers, and the old town, Mameda-machi, has some interesting museums and historic homes. Here, the Kuncho Shuzo brewery still produces a worthy drop and has an exhibition space.

Other scenic spots close to Fukuoka with sake breweries worth visiting (and kurabiraki events this February) are Tanushimaru, Amagi and Yame outside Kurume, and Jojima, farther up in the mountains between Kurume and Saga.

If driving into the hills for a sake festival doesn't fit your schedule or your idea of a day out, you can get a taste of this year's best at one of Fukuoka's best-known sake drinking establishments, Jizakeya Bonchan. Owner Seiji Tanaka has been serving sake for nearly 11 years, and stocks over 200 selections in his stylish inner-city izakaya.

Tanaka is a robust, sunny man who jumps around serving customers and talking sake. He has visited over 370 breweries around Japan in the years since he started Bonchan. He has no "favorite" Kyushu sake (or any other, for that matter); he insists that each must be considered in terms of its own particular style, price, maker and so on.

His selection of the best new brews will be available here for only one month starting mid-February: Undiluted and unpasteurized, genshu can't be stored for long. Enjoy it with Bonchan's renowned, seasonal country-style cooking. Order from the menu, or just give the staff your budget (say, 3 yen,000-5,000 yen per person), sit back and let Tanaka do his food and drink magic.

Although there are hundreds of fine labels available, in the end, sake is to be enjoyed, not theorized over. Sake bonds gregarious folk and opens up the shy ones. Ask Tanaka what the best part of his job is and he'll answer, "Meeting so many wonderful people -- sake drinkers, makers and buyers."

The sake production period finishes late in winter, when snow lingers, fields are black and muddy, and only the icy blue sky suggests spring is close. Then, sake warms the body most and country-style dishes taste their best. That feeling isn't bad at all.

Tanaka Shuzojo, Maebaru, kurabiraki Feb. 19-20; for information, call (092) 322-2901. Seishu Kame-no-O Kuramoto, Munakata, kurabiraki Feb. 12-13; for information, call (0940) 32-3001. Isonosawa Shuzo, Yoshii, kurabiraki Feb. 11; for information, call (094) 377-3103. Jizakeya Bonchan, Fukuoka, (092) 716-3932. Closed Sundays, holidays.


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